Report: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade’s Great American Marching Band

Mike Lawson • Features • January 19, 2009

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This past November, Macy’s Great American Marching Band, a select 250-member ensemble comprised of high school students from all 50 States and Washington D.C., featured prominently in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for the third consecutive year. This ensemble is the result of a collaborative effort by Macy’s and music tour company Music Festivals.

‘In 2006, Macy’s was celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Thanksgiving Day Parade,” says Wesley Whatley, creative manager at Macy’s Parade & Entertainment Group and manager of the Great American Marching Band. ‘We were doing this in a variety of ways: bringing in celebrities and bringing famous characters back that had been with us for years. For the band program, we really wanted to figure out something special. Back in the ’70s and’80s, McDonalds had an All-star band that used to march in our parades, but that went away maybe 15 or 20 years ago when McDonalds decided to no longer produce it. So for the 80th anniversary, we thought we’d bring back this idea of an All-star band that would represent the entire country. At that time, we met up with Dennis [Rhoads, president of Music Festivals], and he was eager to jump on board and put it together from a production standpoint. So we all put our heads together and came up with the Macy’s Great American Marching Band.”


Macy’s and Music Festivals were on the same page regarding the basic format and composition of the band. ‘We really wanted to give an opportunity to kids from all across the country,” continues Whatley. ‘Representing all 50 states was really important. We wanted to give opportunity to kids whose band programs might never make it to New York. Their whole program might not be able to make it, but at least those standout kids would have the chance to come and perform.”

‘The main thing that we wanted to do was make it representative of all 50 states and the District of Columbia,” agrees Dennis Rhoads. ‘The band itself is open to any high school band or band club member in the country. They have to audition for it, but what it does is it gives an opportunity to kids from some of the smaller schools where their band might never have an opportunity to march and play in a major parade, but now they get a chance to do something like that by joining this group.”

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade's Great American Marching BandThe band is co-directed by Dr. Rick Good, director of bands at Auburn University, and Dr. Jon Woods, who runs the marching band at the Ohio State University. ‘Dennis spearheaded putting the pieces together,” says Whatley, ‘but it was a collaborative effort. We gave input, too, but they had already built a relationship with Rick Good from Auburn University. We all met, and we thought he had the right energy, excitement, and acumen. They knew Jon Woods, as well. I had a relationship with the Cadets Drum Corps. I knew their visual team, so I in brought the directors from that and we all kind of figured it out together.” John Lagula, of the Cadets Drum Corps, is the head choreographer.

To get the word out, advertisements for Macy’s Great American Marching band were put into music education publications informational posters were sent to school music programs and band directors around the country, and the details of the event were posted online. ‘We have information on every part of the program on our Web site,” Rhoads explains. ‘We’ve found now that we’re getting a lot of interest based on word of mouth: either someone mentions it or students see it on TV, and then they Google it and find out more information. Initially we relied on the directors, but now we’re finding that a lot of students who have participated are telling their friends about it. We have some students who will be applying for the fourth year!”

Looking at the nuts and bolts of the project, students arrive on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and the first rehearsal takes place on Sunday evening. There are additional rehearsals on the morning of each of the next three days leading up to Thanksgiving, when the band hits the streets.

For the organizers, this meant some initial uncertainty about the brief time allotted for preparation, but those fears were quickly allayed. As Rhoads says, ‘The lack of rehearsal time concerned us in the beginning because we wanted to make sure we were putting out a great product. I think the thing is, the kids are so talented, they prepare the music before they arrive. It’s just an awesome group this year the kids were simply phenomenal. It is amazing how fast these kids are able to put the whole thing together. We probably could have had the performance on Tuesday, if we’d had to, because the kids were just that good.”

The Great American Marching Band has produced tremendously positive feedback, both in terms of quality of music and in terms of the experiences had by the participating students. The momentum created by the formation of this ensemble has even generated a second opportunity for the young musicians: an alumni band, to perform at Universal Studios on New Year’s Eve Day, is being assembled. ‘This is the inaugural year for the alumni band,” elaborates Whatley, ‘which is a chance for the kids to perform together on New Year’s Eve. We received a lot of feedback from the participants following each year’s performance they missed each other and wanted to get back together so this is an opportunity for that. It’s just our first shot at giving students who’ve performed in the Macy’s Great American Band a chance to reconnect with each other.”

While there is yet to be a scholarship program set up by Macy’s or Music Festivals for the Great American Marching Band, a number of corporate sponsors have stepped in to provide instruments and other amenities that will help alleviate the burden of the cost of participating in the event: brass is provided by Jupiter Instruments; percussion instruments are provided by Mapex; The Band Hall provides uniforms; Sabian provides cymbals; Vic Firth provides drum sticks; and Coca-cola provides water.

Applications to participate in the 2009 Macy’s Great American Marching Band are being accepted now, with rolling deadlines that begin March 30. For more information, visit


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